Nos. 4, 5 prospects among TB's spring invites

January 19th, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays filled out their Spring Training roster on Thursday, announcing eight Minor League signings and 18 of their own prospects who will be invited to big league camp next month.

Tampa Bay agreed to terms with eight players on Minor League contracts with non-roster invitations to Major League Spring Training: right-handers Colten Brewer, Braden Bristo, Zack Burdi, Ben Heller, Heath Hembree, Trevor Kelley and Elvin Rodriguez and catcher Nick Dini.

The list of prospects invited to camp is headlined by first baseman Kyle Manzardo and left-hander Mason Montgomery, the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year and Pitcher of the Year last season, as well as Arizona Fall League standout reliever Evan Reifert.

The Rays also invited the following Minor Leaguers to Spring Training: right-handers Trevor Brigden, Ryan Burr, Cooper Criswell, Evan McKendry, Michael Mercado, Chris Muller, Hector Perez and Josh Roberson; catcher Blake Hunt; infielders Tristan Gray and Ronny Simon; and outfielders Ruben Cardenas, Niko Hulsizer, Kameron Misner and Grant Witherspoon.

Those moves leave the Rays with a spring roster of 66 players: 38 pitchers, five catchers, 13 infielders and 10 outfielders.

The Rays have developed a reputation for getting the most out of their pitchers, even lower-profile additions. They’ll hope for similar success stories with this crop of non-roster invitees, who come with various levels of Major League experience and should at least provide necessary depth throughout the season.

Hembree, 34, has pitched in parts of 10 seasons with the Giants, Red Sox, Phillies, Reds, Mets, Pirates and Dodgers, compiling a 4.39 ERA in 357 relief appearances. Brewer, 30, has a 5.04 ERA in 81 outings over parts of four seasons with the Padres and Red Sox. The 31-year-old Heller had a 2.59 ERA in 31 appearances over parts of four seasons with the Yankees, but he’s been limited to 8 2/3 innings in the Minors over the last two years due to a stress fracture in his elbow.

Kelley, 30, has posted a 7.13 ERA in 32 big league appearances for the Red Sox, Phillies and Brewers, although he finished last season by recording a 2.36 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 34 1/3 innings over 34 appearances for Triple-A Nashville before being designated for assignment on Jan. 4. The 27-year-old Burdi, a first-round Draft pick in 2016, was with the White Sox and Orioles in 2020-21 (7.79 ERA in 15 games) and was limited to 10 outings in the Nationals’ system last year due to a right elbow injury.

Rodriguez, 24, logged a 10.62 ERA over seven appearances in his debut for the Tigers last season. He pitched well for the Tigres del Licey in the Dominican Winter League and owns a 3.89 ERA in 127 Minor League appearances. The 28-year-old Bristo has spent his entire career in the Yankees' system, putting together a 3.51 ERA in 178 outings over six Minor League seasons.

Dini will back up the trio of catchers on the 40-man roster: Christian Bethancourt, Francisco Mejía and René Pinto. The 29-year-old, whose only big league action came over 20 games for the Royals in 2019, slashed .232/.323/.446 with 11 homers and 37 RBIs in 50 games for Triple-A Syracuse in the Mets’ system last season.

Manzardo, recently named MLB Pipeline’s No. 3 first-base prospect, may very well be the Rays’ first baseman of the future. The 22-year-old slashed .327/.426/.617 with 22 homers and 81 RBIs in 93 games between High-A Bowling Green and Double-A Montgomery last season, leading the system in all three triple-slash statistics while ranking third in homers and fourth in RBIs.

The same goes for Montgomery, 22, who recorded a 2.10 ERA with 171 strikeouts over 27 starts for Bowling Green and Montgomery last year. The lefty finished last season as the Rays’ No. 5 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, as he led all Tampa Bay prospects in ERA and strikeouts.

Reifert, the 23-year-old with a wipeout slider, turned heads in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League by striking out 25 of the 40 batters he faced, walking only four and allowing just one hit in 11 2/3 innings over eight appearances for the Mesa Solar Sox last fall.

Among the other notable prospects coming to big league camp are Burr, who signed a two-year Minor League deal last August and is currently recovering from right shoulder surgery; Hector Perez, a Minor League phase Rule 5 Draft pick in December; Misner, Tampa Bay’s No. 19 prospect; Simon, who impressed in the Fall League; and Hunt, part of the Rays’ return for Blake Snell.